Yarrick: Pyres of Armageddon by David Annandale – Book Review [Bellarius]

Returning to M41 once more, Bellarius gives his verdict on how Pyres of Armageddon brings Commissar Yarrick to life.

“An excellent release, perfectly describing Yarrick’s finest hour and with plenty of action to satisfy even the most avid of 40K fans.” – Bellarius, The Founding Fields

With Black Library pumping out ever more series and short stories, it’s understandable that a few would go upraised. While the Garro saga has maintained hit after hit, few mention it when discussing the Horus Heresy as a whole, and Path of the Dark Eldar is criminally underrated as the best single xenos series written to date. Above all others, however, we have the Yarrick series, which charts the life and career of the famed Commissar and Hero of Armageddon. A difficult task to be sure given the man’s fame, nature and history, and even Aaron Dembski-Bowden apparently felt it best to limit him to a single scene of Helsreach. However, it was with this book that David Annandale really started to get his bearings on the franchise, and you honestly couldn’t ask for a better example of his works.

Set during the Ghazghkull Thraka’s first true foray against the Imperium of Man, the book follows Yarrick’s efforts to turn back the greenskin horde. Grossly outnumbering the defenders many times over and with defensive efforts stymied again and again by Armageddon’s corrupt governor, the Commissar is set to face hell itself. With a near impossible task before him, this war will shape Yarrick into a legend; but what kind of man will emerge on the other side of this war?

The real beauty of Yarrick is exactly the same thing which makes him so difficult to write – He’s a figurehead. Whereas Russ, Ragnar, Dante or many others have elements which can be converted into a well rounded figure, trying to humanize Yarrick would undermine a critical part of his appeal. This is, after all, the same man who responded to an ork rumour that he could kill with a look by having a laser implanted into his eye. He’s so over the top that weakening that visual, that single definitive view would cripple the very reason people want to read more about him in the first place. As such, Annandale really was probably the best person for the job here. While his work might be hit and miss at times, his emphasis upon big, bold and larger-than-life elements of Warhammer above all else gave him an immediate edge with the character. Much like his work with Mephiston, while we learn a great deal about his past and even look through his eyes, the reader is never pushed so close into becoming overly familiar with him. While you might be reading about the man, it never starts to destroy the legend people know and love.

The story itself does a solid job of sticking to the lore for the most part without being utterly bound do it. Unlike mistakes we’ve seen in the past such as Eternal Crusader, the story stops to discuss and examine key events or moments but never goes out of its way to stick completely to them. While this certainly means there’s a few minor alterations to the existing timeline of the Second War (such as a distinct lack of Squats) these are made either to excuse the story or keep the focus placed squarely upon its viewpoint characters. Those who know of the war’s events will still get the thrill of seeing the battles play out, while newcomers won’t be left with the feeling that they’ve ended up with a glorified expansion to someone else’s work. This is further assisted thanks to the book rarely becoming bogged down in events, and often moving at quite a brisk pace from scene to scene. While it certainly doesn’t favour explosions over character dynamics, there’s never a mistake made where events are relentlessly drawn out or left to chock out key events.

With much of the action surrounding Hive Hades itself, certain points of the war do go mentioned rather than being truly shown, but the story still works well in spite of this. Exposition scenes are worked neatly into the narrative and delivered well enough that, in all honesty, they were hard to pick up on until re-reading the story at a later date. In addition, some moments where second hand information is passed on help to give a little more credibility to key events, and impress upon the reader the sheer scale of the war. It’s just a small hint of realism, but given the approach used by the rest of the book, it’s most definitely needed.

The languages used both in and out of the battles is about as bombastic, loud and blunt as you would expect, fully embracing the balls-to-the-wall intensity Warhammer is best known for. While it’s certainly easy to praise a novel for breaking away from such trends, the way in which Pyres of Armageddon so wholeheartedly embraces sheer destruction in every single moment of conflict is quite the sight to behold. It manages to strike that exact chord needed for it to remain intense and seemingly unyielding without relentless action ever becoming white, background noise. It further helps that the book paces itself, and concludes in easily one of the best duels Black Library has seen in years.

So, now you know its qualities but what does it do wrong exactly? For starters, it seemed that the author simply did not know what to do with Herman von Strab. While much of the story behind the Second War of Armageddon hinged upon his sheer incompetence and corruption, it never feels as if there’s a satisfactory reason for Yarrick to keep him alive. At first certainly, but as things keep getting worse with his every decision, it becomes unbelievable that he wouldn’t end up with a bullet in his head. Furthermore, the characters themselves are unfortunately a little one note and the third-person/first-person switches can be more than a little jarring. While they certainly work extraordinarily well in some books, the Ravenor trilogy being the perfected example of this, it’s hard to say if anything would have been lost by simply sticking to third person the entire way through. We learn a little more about Yarrick to be sure, but his iron-willed and stone-faced nature would still have worked fine outside of his head.

Annandale’s typical prose can also be a little awkward to read at times. Favouring ultra-short extremely pithy sentences can be great for action scenes, and very brief but poignant character moments, but it lacks the sweeping scale needed for some scenes. There’s never a bit where you’re given the sheer, massive scale of the Hive as Abnett or McNeill might and it lacks a lot of the more artistic touches which help to further build up an atmosphere befitting M41. Plus, without revealing spoilers, the book also fail to deliver the exact thing certain readers are jumping on board to see. There’s little which can be added aside from that without ruining the book, but it’s a famous aspect of Yarrick’s character.

What’s more is that, while the nature of its brisk pace can serve to attract easy readers, there’s never a true sense of immensity. The story never truly pauses to build up something or lay out the groundwork for just how vast, just how titanic a conflict will be or to fully establish Armageddon’s importance. What we get in terms of character moments to establish this are okay, they do their job, but they lack the sheer weight and focus that a couple of true initial chapters would in establishing just how big the war will truly be. Now, some books can certainly start with wars or massive acts of violence and still pay off. The Chapter’s Due, Seventh Retribution and Necropolis have all proved that, but even they had a few breather chapters to lay out the groundwork before getting into the fight. It’s more disappointing than a true failure, but it’s still hard not to feel as if something is missing as you go into this one.

In all honesty, even accounting for those key weaknesses in the story, Pyres of Armageddon is unaccountably another great hit in this series. While it will certainly benefit readers if they at least skim through Imperial Creed first, it’s a solid entry point into the saga and a great single shot story if you want to stick to Yarrick’s most famous war. If you’re after something which isn’t starring the astartes for a change, definitely give this one a look.

Verdict: 6.9/10

Bellarius

Long time reader of novels, occasional writer of science fiction and critic of many things; Bellarius has seen some of the best and worst the genre has to offer.
Find more of his reviews and occasional rants here:
http://thegoodthebadtheinsulting.blogspot.co.uk/

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